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Home » PEOPLE AND PLACES in MA » MASSACHUSETTS (all topics) » Navigating the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum
John F. Kennedy Library and Museum     BY: Tom Fitzsimmons / John F. Kennedy Library Foundation
Navigating the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum

Boston, Massachusetts

By Lindsay Tucker | August 02, 2012

The Kennedy’s are like the royal family of Massachusetts. At the height of their popularity, the nation’s infatuation with the first lady, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, is only comparable to the world’s fascination with Princess Diana in the eighties and nineties.

Official White House Portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy (1961)
BY: Mark Shaw

Jack and his glamorous gal, Jackie, became the portrait of the perfect American couple. They were young dreamers with the means and vitality to change America. In the 1960s, the nation was in trouble, but we looked to those smiling faces and we saw promise.

The tour of the John F. Kennedy Museum begins with a series of photos and a 17-minute film portraying the 35th president as a good ole’ Harvard boy—shirtless in khaki shorts, tossing a football with friends, and wearing Ray-Bans above an infectious grin. Narrated by the man himself, he impresses upon his audience a carefree air no Kennedy has enjoyed since 1963.

He tells us about his adventures in the Navy, his love of history and literature, and his desire to be a writer, not a politician. The film ends with his nomination for the presidency, albeit probably leaving audience members who don’t know the wider story puzzled as to why this ambivalent scholar ran for congress and then president.

Of course being a New Englander and Kennedy fanatic, I know the story. After his brother Joe Jr.’s death in the Second World War, Jack—the second eldest of the Kennedy brood—received tremendous pressure from his father, Joe Sr., to fill his brothers shoes and carry on the family’s political legacy.

But looking around at the other thirty or so people in the auditorium (whose license plates read New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania), I feel like they were ill-informed and most likely left with questions.

After the film, we move herd-like past a television and signs depicting the Democratic Convention of 1960. This is followed by the “Campaign Trail,” which begins with the window of an appliance store of the time displaying period household goods such as radios, phones, and a hair dryer. Just past, we find a row of black-and-white televisions showing news and film footage of Senator Kennedy’s race against Vice President Richard M. Nixon.

The JFK Museum's 1960 Exhibit
This Image Appears Courtesy of Tom Fitzsimmons/John F. Kennedy Library Foundation

Campaign paraphernalia with slogans like “Kennedy for President” and “If I were 21, I’d Vote for Kennedy” plaster the walls. Walk a little further and you can view clips from the legendary Kennedy-Nixon Debate—America’s first televised presidential debate. The control panel and television camera used by CBS for the original broadcast set the scene beyond a velvet rope.

Moving on, you’ll find a large production of the electoral map and view video footage of the election results. Finally we get to sit like the obviously cold crowds did that day in January and watch Kennedy’s legendary inauguration speech, which the museum advertises as “one of the shortest in our country’s history, and yet… long resonated.”

Now it gets interesting. I’ve never seen the White House in the flesh, but the museum’s curators attempt to replicate the interior style and atmosphere of the Kennedy White House. On the walls are pictures of the presidential couple as well as gifts given to them by powerful figureheads from around the globe.   Check out Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy’s closet equipped with a minty-green skirt suit worn by the first lady in 1962, or an Egyptian statue given to her by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Details shed light on the family’s personal life: doodles of sailboats done by Jack, Yule cards and photographs by Jackie, and hand-written notes from the president’s days at Harvard fill out the different exhibits, but leave much to be desired.

John F. Kennedy

Finally, we enter a dark corridor lined with small flickering television screens broadcasting the breaking news of President Kennedy’s tragic death from Walter Cronkite. We see the funeral march, the black veils, the ashen faces of Bobby and Jackie, and Lyndon B. Johnson as he takes the oath to become the 36th president of the United States.

The compression and weight of the death chamber is relieved suddenly by the panoramic ocean view behind the 115-foot glass window of the museum’s central pavilion. Designed like the bridge of a ship, it looks out over the bow to the hypnotic ocean waters that inevitably lead the mind to reflection.

Although the museum emphasizes JFK’s strides in improving America’s space program and the treatment of citizens with mental retardation, it underplays his significance in the civil rights movement, the Cuban Missile Crisis, or American involvement in Vietnam.

The whole experience made me feel warm and fuzzy about the Kennedys, Massachusetts, and freedom, but falls a bit short on contextualizing the time period President Kennedy was facing. President Kennedy was more than a Massachusetts family man with an ambition for space travel and a love of adventure. He established the Peace Corps, abolished the mandatory death penalty, challenged Soviet oppression and brought hope to millions. And that’s always worth remembering.

If you’re looking for historical context and a bit of education, the JFK Library has more to offer than the museum. Browse the library’s archives, which include more than eight million pages of “the personal, congressional, and presidential papers” of JFK. Hemingway fans will love the most comprehensive collection of the writer’s material in one place, including the first hand-written draft of The Sun Also Rises. Those are as educational as they are time-consuming.


The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Columbia Point, Boston, MA 02125

(617) 514-1600


Opening Hours:

Mon-Sun: 9AM–5PM

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